Aug. 4-6 at the National Gallery of Art
and Randy Barbato
Victor Erice’s Dream of Light is a meticulous vision about a meticulous vision. Seen occasionally in the U.S. under the title The Quince Tree Sun and now getting a few limited runs to publicize its release on video, the 1992 film is a documentary about a painting. Yet that’s like saying the painting, undertaken by Madrid artist Antonio Lopez Garcia, is a picture of some fruit. True enough, but the description hardly captures the character of the work.
The film begins with only incidental noise, as Garcia stretches the canvas, nails it to a frame, and places it in his back yard, close to a small quince tree. His approach is precise and mathematical, from the strings he hangs to divide the scene into quadrants to the nails he pounds into the ground so that he can always place his feet in the exact same spots. The painter’s subject is the evanescence of light, but he wants his own view of this flickering phenomenon to be exact and immutable.
As the process continues, Garcia begins to talk. Not to the camera or to some unseen interrogator but to friends who drop by, his wife and daughters, and two Chinese people who are not identified, although they clearly have more than a casual interest in art. (Explaining his approach to art to them, Garcia sounds rather Asian.) In part, these conversations are about the weather, which has turned cold and rainy. Is it a typical Madrid October, or is it something worse? The painter thinks the downpours are unusual, but perhaps that’s just because they threaten the completion of his canvas before the autumn light is gone and the quinces have fallen from the tree.
Erice is familiar with slow progress and uncompleted projects; he’s finished only three films since 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive, his best-known work. The filmmaker keeps his distance, so it’s impossible to say if he approves of Garcia’s deliberate, somewhat fussy approach, but it seems likely that he does. Certainly the film has none of the tortured passion of another great early-’90s cinematic meditation on artist and subject, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse. (Of course, in that film the model was a nude Emmanuelle Beart, not a rather homely tree.)
The broken Spanish of the Eastern European workmen who are renovating Garcia’s house and the news on the radio—Cold War tensions easing, Gulf War tensions increasing—hint at a wider world. Still, both the painter and the filmmaker want to focus on the tree, the fruit, and the light, contemplating matters of reality and representation. Maybe even those issues are too complicated for this eloquently, luminously simple film. As Garcia explains, “The best part is being close to the tree.”
It doesn’t take long to arrive at the thesis of The Eyes of Tammy Faye. It’s revealed in one of the first credits: “Narrated by RuPaul Charles.” Yes, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato think of Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner as a drag queen: an affectionate if garish parody of femininity and a tortured trouper whose greatest punishment is that she no longer regularly goes before the camera. Tammy Faye was not only the wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker but also his faithful on-air sidekick, and the filmmakers apparently believe that she—like another longtime second banana—deserves her own Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-style breakthrough to stardom.
Two things you may not have known about Tammy Faye: (1) She was actually pretty before she developed a taste for freak-show makeup and hairstyles, and (2) she likes gay people. The filmmakers give her lots of credit for embracing AIDS patients early in the ’80s, when mainstream America’s attitude toward the disease was medieval, and for hosting a (failed) post-disgrace talk show with an openly gay co-host, Jim J. Bullock. Bullock speculates that Tammy actually disapproves of homosexuality on theological grounds, but this is such a softball of a movie that it never asks her the question directly.
Because Tammy Faye and the ambitious Jim Bakker started their career with a children’s show that glorified Jesus with puppets, each segment is introduced by campy sock puppets whose high-pitched delivery recalls Babe’s rodent chorus. It turns out that the film’s heroine grew up unhappily in International Falls, Minn.—model for Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Frostbite Falls—met Jim in Bible college, and supported his vision through several failed attempts to start a televangelistic TV network. Along the way, she had two kids, got addicted to Ativan, a prescription drug, and became estranged from her husband. Yet she was there on the PTL Network every day, seconding Jim’s emotions, often in song. After Jim vowed to broadcast 24 hours a day until the Second Coming, she helped him—in her words—”put the fun into Christianity.” Revealed in clips from her appearances, what she means by fun seems dire, but sincere.
Then came Jessica Hahn, who whirls through the movie in snippets from her Playboy video, strutting her fallen-woman stuff in a see-through blouse as if she were Madonna (no, not the Madonna). Jerry Falwell moved in, declaring Jim a pervert and a crook, and setting the stage for his conviction and incarceration on fraud charges. Jim (who appears briefly), Tammy Faye, and Roe Messner (who helped build the Bakkers’ Heritage USA theme park and then married Tammy after she and Jim divorced) insist that Jim was a bad businessman, not a crook. The movie claims that the real issue was that Falwell—who declined to be interviewed—coveted PTL’s satellite. Plus, Falwell does not like gay people. Almost as much as The Eyes of Tammy Faye does not like him.
This is all credible, if glib and narrow. (The talking heads—including Pat Boone—who admiringly compare Tammy Faye to Cher and Hillary seem to have a limited range of female role models.) Viewers who hate Tammy Faye and Jim and love Falwell will probably not be swayed. And even those who come away convinced that Tammy Faye is a good soul and a born entertainer may not wish fervently for her comeback.
The British are different from you and me. For one thing, they’ve become remarkably keen on drugs. Just about everyone in Saving Grace enjoys an illegal smile, beginning with co-writer and star Craig Ferguson, who plays well-meaning eccentric Scottish caretaker Matthew, a slight variation on the well-meaning eccentric Scottish hairdresser he played in The Big Tease.
This time, Ferguson’s role is both less flamboyant and less central; the title character is Grace Trevethen (Brenda Blethyn, playing upstairs rather than downstairs for a change). A member of the tiny aristocracy in a tiny Cornwall town, Grace cares only for gardening until the day her husband dies and she discovers he’s left her deeply in debt. She knows nothing about money or drugs, but when Matthew asks for help cultivating a few scrawny marijuana plants, she decides that turning her greenhouse into a pot factory is the only way to raise enough money fast enough to save her beloved home.
With its banks of high-intensity lights, the operation is hardly subtle, but everyone in town is clueless as they pull for Grace, or—like the local doctor—eagerly await a chance to sample the crop. One of the few skeptics is Matthew’s girlfriend, Nicky (Valerie Edmond), a fishing-boat captain who has a special (if predictable) reason for not wanting Matthew to go to jail. It’s a clunky bit of female bonding that leads Grace instead of Matthew to try to find a big-time dealer; she heads for Portobello Road in a matronly all-white outfit to solicit passing hippies and Rastas. Meanwhile, back in Cornwall, the nice old ladies who run the local shop have decided that Grace’s crop must be a kind of tea and put the kettle on.
This misapprehension leads to one of the several giggly scenes that could have been copped from a Cheech and Chong movie, but mostly Saving Grace plays like one of the mild satires made at London’s Ealing Studios in the ’50s. Even when first-time feature director Nigel Cole introduces a player who wouldn’t have appeared in an Ealing comedy—Tcheky Karyo as an ominous French drug lord, for example—the character seems as familiar as the ’70s-rock score. (One more time, “Spirit in the Sky”!) Will Grace successfully bring her crop to market, proving that soft-drug crime does pay? Come on, even the British are not that different.
You wouldn’t expect a Clint Eastwood film about old guys in outer space to really be about the plight of aging baby boomers, but that certainly seems to be the theme of the first half of the 70-year-old director’s Space Cowboys. All four of the movie’s heroes—Eastwood as Frank, Tommy Lee Jones as Hawk, Donald Sutherland as Jerry, and James Garner as Tank—are supposed to be former Air Force pilots who lost their shot at the moon in 1958, but the stars are not exactly peers. The youngest, Jones, is 53, too youthful to have been flying experimental jets in the late ’50s, but just about right for a boomer guy struggling to keep up his muscle tone and impress a younger woman (40-year-old Marcia Gay Harden as NASA Mission Director Sara Holland).
The opening part of Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner’s script has an acceptable sense of its own absurdity. When the orbit of an antiquated Soviet satellite begins to decay, a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija) informs NASA boss Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) that civil war may result if the satellite crashes to earth. Somehow, Soviet scientists copied their guidance system from one created long ago by Frank, now retired but still a bitter hothead who’s been feuding with Gerson ever since the latter grounded Frank’s Team Daedalus (named for the older, wiser member of the mythical father-and-son duo that flew away from captivity in Crete).
Frank agrees to help, but only if he can take his whole gang into space: playboy Jerry, preacherman Tank, and reckless Hawk, with whom Frank has always had a stormy relationship. The conniving Gerson agrees, with a proviso that he assumes will keep the old folks at home: They must pass the same physical as the younger space jockeys. So training begins, providing the opportunity for some rueful humor. Frank and his pals are the sort who actually enjoy returning to the macho atmosphere of boot camp, bantering with the young guys (and gal) and undertaking 10-mile runs. This part of the movie is crisp and watchable, if old-fashioned. The jaunty music (by Lennie Niehaus) is almost as retro as Harden’s role, which requires her mostly to gaze adoringly at the geezernauts.
Liftoff is when the momentum sputters. Suddenly, the film starts taking cues from Armageddon, as the members of Team Daedalus reach the satellite only to discover that they’ve been crucially misled. Time for self-sacrifice, tear-streaked concern from the girl they left behind at Mission Control, and a song to make it all right. (This time it’s Sinatra, not Aerosmith.) When it comes to cosmic soap opera, it turns out, the codgers have no intention of challenging the boomer formula. CP